Society in the making: quantification and accountability

by Andreas Schadauer

“The top 10% of Austrian households own 61% of all real estate assets.” For a certain time, this statistical argument could be read in several newspapers, was taken for granted by some journalists and commentators, and was used as a strong argument for inheritance and wealth taxes. But how did this statistical argument get accepted, persistent and influential? Who or what was able and enabled to produce it? And who or what is accountable for this statistical argument?

For the last question, the answers provided by the textbooks of empirical research I read as student of Sociology at the University of Vienna are quite clear-cut. If produced methodologically correct, numbers and statistics represent reality objectively (e.g. Diekmann, 2007: 23f) and due to this have authority, superiority and are politically neutral (Kreutz, 2009: 3). This notion stands in stark contrast to approaches in STS which point out the social, political and institutional quality of scientific methods (e.g. Desrosières, 2002; Kenney, 2015; Law, 2010).

In my PhD thesis I approached these questions within the framework of a case study on the Real Estate Asset Survey the introductory argument is based on (Andreasch et al., 2010) and the subsequent Household Finance and Consumption Survey (Andreasch et al., 2012). My empirical material is composed of interviews with researchers, research reports, newspaper articles discussing or contesting the survey outcomes, and material about the different objects/actants involved in conducting the survey, e.g. the questionnaire.

And within this empirical material, how the introductory statement gained its persistence and influence looked a lot more complicated and varied to what I was used to read in textbooks and published research reports. In my material methodological rigorousness played as much a role as technological developments, economic markets, policymaking, and so forth. The illustration below visualises my analytical work with the empirical material. It is hence particular, subjective and partial1)For the analysis of the empirical material I picked up Adele Clarke’s theory/method package “Situational Analysis” (2005). The format of the presented illustration is very much influenced by Clarke’s project and social world/arena map.. As my main focus has been on the production of numbers and statistics, I’ve put it at the centre of the illustration. The actors and actants of my empirical material moved between and within different social sites (Schatzki, 2002) or arenas/worlds (Clarke, 2005).

Sites
© Schadauer 2016

How the statistical argument got accepted, persistent and influential, I illustrated as an intermingling of different sites. Sites, where researchers learn, internalize and ascertain how to conduct surveys (the world of quantitative research) and where the used statistic and other software are developed (the world of technical devices). Sites, where organisations compete for contracts and provide an array of interviewers (the opinion and market research economic sector) to make households available for scientific inquiries (households in Austria). And also arenas, where numbers and statistics are disseminated, edited, further contextualised but also contested (political and media arena).

In this picture the question of accountability is spread among these different sites. The researchers being busy organising the survey, preparing the questionnaire and writing the reports are as much accountable for the introductory statement as the journalists publishing or using the statement to argue for or against certain policy measures. In my narrative neither could the scientific community work as a safe hideaway for social science, nor could policy-makers or media representatives delegate accountability by referring to science when taking up research outcomes to legitimise decision-making.

But what are they accountable for? On the one hand, in producing and using numbers and statistics these enmeshed sites implicitly stipulate that quantification of social phenomena is of relevance for political, social and economic decision making2)The differentiation between implicit and explicit follows John Law’s argument in “Collateral Realities”.. On the other hand, and connected to this, by quantifying previously unavailable aspects of Austrian households they explicitly enable policy makers, journalists and other researcher to pick up certain topics, e.g. social inequality, distribution of wealth, and the adequacy of property and inheritance taxes. And by doing this, numbers and statistics always take a stance. They are necessarily political, no matter if the producers intended it or not.

What I took away from all of this is that numbers and statistics are nothing to hide behind. Enacting them for example as evidence in policy and decision making doesn’t absolve one of accountability. However, numbers and statistics also have nothing to hide. Bringing the different actors, actants, practices, their connections, and uncertainties to the fore doesn’t diminish but raise their significance and also makes them more interesting, at least in my book (or PhD thesis).

References

Andreasch M., Mooslechner P. and Schürz M. (2010). Einige Aspekte der Vermögensverteilung in Österreich. In: Bundesministerium für Arbeit, Soziales und Konsumentenschutz (ed.), Sozialbericht 2009–2010, Österreich: Bundesministerium für Arbeit, Soziales und Konsumentenschutz, pp. 234–260.

Andreasch M., Fessler P., Mooslechner P., et al. (2012). Fakten zur Vermögensverteilung in Österreich. In: Bundesministerium für Arbeit, Soziales und Konsumentenschutz (ed.), Sozialbericht 2011-2012, Österreich: Bundesministerium für Arbeit, Soziales und Konsumentenschutz, pp. 247–266.

Clarke A. (2005). Situational Analysis – Grounded Theory After the Postmodern Turn. SAGE.

Desrosières A. (2002). The Politics of Large Numbers: A History of Statistical Reasoning. Harvard University Press.

Diekmann A. (2007). Empirische Sozialforschung: Grundlagen, Methoden, Anwendungen. 4. Auflage, Feb. 2010. rororo.

Kenney M. (2015). Counting, accounting, and accountability: Helen Verran’s relational empiricism. Social Studies of Science 45(5): 749–771.

Kreutz H. (2009). Stellungnahme zur gesellschaftspolitischen Verwertung der soziologischen Dissertation von Dr. M. Khorchide zur Qualifikation der Lehrkräfte im islamischen Religionsunterricht in Österreich. Newsletter der ÖGS.

Law J. (2010). The Double Social Life of Method. Available from: http://heterogeneities.net/publications/Law2010DoubleSocialLifeofMethod5.pdf.

Schatzki T. (2002). The Site of the Social: A Philosophical Account of the Constitution of Social Life and Change. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.


Andreas Schadauer is a researcher at ZARA – Civil Courage and Anti-Racism-Work and as of late holds a PhD from the Department of Science and Technology Studies, University of Vienna. At ZARA he works on the topics of labour market discrimination and recently on cyber hate/online hate speech. His is also interests in the multi-sited character of (social) scientific knowledge production and the effects of quantification and standardisation.

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1. For the analysis of the empirical material I picked up Adele Clarke’s theory/method package “Situational Analysis” (2005). The format of the presented illustration is very much influenced by Clarke’s project and social world/arena map.
2. The differentiation between implicit and explicit follows John Law’s argument in “Collateral Realities”.